A couple of months ago, Harvey Weinstein showed up to watch me perform on the Lower East Side in New York, so I said something along the lines of “rape is bad” on stage, and now the Internet wants to hear what else I’ve got, which is pretty cool. A lot of people have reached out to tell me that I’m brave, which is gratifying. A lot of people have also reached out to tell me that I look like Ryan from The Office, which is exciting news as well.
“What am I going to do next?” seems to be the biggest question.
Let’s back track: In April 2018, I produced a comedy show called “Rape Jokes by Survivors” as a response to the #MeToo movement. At the time, I was hearing a lot of bad, victim-shaming rape jokes at shows and thought audiences should hear better, funnier jokes about rape from survivors. This was the first stand-up show I ever produced.
Back then, most of my writing was about my own trauma because that was what was at the forefront of my mind. It was something I felt like I had to write out of my system before I could move on to anything else, before I could even get on stage. I wrote screenplays about it, book treatments about it, poems and songs about it, and a lot of sad jokes that I will never utter out loud. They live in a zipped folder on my computer that should probably be labeled: “PLEASE DELETE WHEN I DIE.”
At the beginning of October, it occurred to me that I’d been attempting to pitch and sell my rape survivor comedy show as a tour and stand-up special for almost two years.
Two weeks later, on October 19, I met with a producer in Los Angeles who told me, frankly, that it was unlikely I’d be able to move forward with the project if I couldn’t find a famous comic to attach to it. It was a letdown to hear, but in part I was relieved. So much had changed for me since I first put together this show. I had at least 30 minutes of stand-up material not about rape; I was writing and producing a sketch web series not about rape. I had a punk band, ideas for books and movies—all not about rape! It seemed like it might be time to let this one go, and hopefully let go of some of that trauma, too. It was a sign from the universe; the chance to just be funny about dating and sex and poop and anxiety and whatever else the cool comedians are talking about.
On October 23, I saw an infamous alleged rapist at a bar show in Manhattan. A sign from the universe—going in the other direction. Fuck. I panicked. I texted comedian friends, asking if I should say something. I asked the people around me if they thought I should say something. When some of them said, “No,” and made clear that this person had also been invited to their previous event, I knew I couldn’t just drop it. Fuck. I was supposed to be done talking about rape! When we make plans, God laughs? (Now I feel like the Forrest Gump of rape. Like that one? I have a great stand-up show about rape if anyone wants to buy it!)
The first impulse I had was: Talk about this on stage.
Trauma has been the monster under my bed for a long time. It was a huge part of my childhood, my college years, and my early-adult years. I’ve spent a lot of time debating with myself whether it’s better for me to run from it, with it, or against it. What next course of action will translate most as, “Really, I’m okay, guys, don’t worry about me”? What can I do that proves I’ve moved on? Does it hurt more to talk about it or not talk about it? What can I write that will say, “This doesn’t define me, but also it is a part of my experience, but also it didn’t ruin my life, but also I’m not ashamed to talk about it, but also I could be famous without this, but also if I’m going to be famous because of this obviously I’m going to stand up for survivors, but also I swear I’m usually funnier when I talk about other stuff.”
The first impulse I had was: Talk about this on stage. I didn’t intend for several million strangers to know that I’ve been raped via shaky Twitter video before I’d ever met them but if that’s what had to happen, I want to at least be funny or helpful about it from now on. It feels like the most genuine and healing thing I can do both for me and for fellow survivors.
But the fact is writing a funny joke about rape trauma is not an easy task. In the last month, I’ve written a new 15-minute set all about it, and I’ll be honest with you… It is very hit or miss. I am bombing, to be clear. If you’re (mercifully) unfamiliar with bombing, it’s when you make a joke, and no one laughs, but you keep going, usually desperately trying to resuscitate life back into a dead room of unimpressed audience members.
Every comedian has to bomb in order to learn, but of course it does not feel good. Bombing with a set of new jokes about your rape, is a very particular not-good feeling. Sometimes after I bomb on a set full of trauma jokes, the next comic up opens their set with a gag in which victims are the punchline. The joke usually kills, a little relief for the audience after my set. I don’t think people do it to hurt me, but sometimes it does hurt. I get a little emotional. Fine. I full on sob in public. Last time it happened, someone asked if I was upset about my set, and I yelled out, “NO, OF COURSE NOT, IT’S ALLERGIES!”
Which is true. I am clearly allergic…to my vulnerability.
The scariest part of trauma brain is knowing that even if 95,000 people out there on the Internet are rooting for me, I can still find a room where I will be met with booing or the words, “Shut up.”
I don’t want to censor other comedians, but I’ll admit it can be emotionally exhausting for me to hear, especially knowing what everyone knows about me. Sometimes I actually catch myself forcing a loud laugh, just in case someone is looking at me, gauging how I react. I don’t want to let them see me not laughing at a rape punchline. “HAHAHAHA! WHATEVER, IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL,” I might as well say. “LOOK AT ME. I’M A NORMAL, NOT-RAPED COMIC! I’M NORMAL LIKE YOU! HAHA, I’M JUST LIKE YOU! YOU CAN’T HURT ME! I’M INVINCIBLE!”
(Out here in the real world, odds are no one is looking at me, and I’m not even crossing their minds, but that’s trauma brain.)
The scariest part of trauma brain is knowing that even if 95,000 people out there on the Internet are rooting for me, I can still find a room where I will be met with booing or the words, “Shut up.” That would be the case whether I told rape jokes or not—again, all comics have to bomb. But bombing while attempting to work through trauma is just a tough pill to swallow.
Last month, the host of a radio show asked me if I’m a comedian because of rape or if I am a comedian in spite of rape? The short answer to this and questions like it is “huh?”
The long answer is, I don’t know. Like most comics, I remember the first time I made a large group of people laugh. It was a third-grade school project about weather. I didn’t have many friends, but I was labeled the “smart girl” in class, so the other kids put me in charge. I had done the research, written our paper, and designed the poster for our report.
But as the other groups presented, I realized I had forgotten we were also supposed to write a skit about weather. Other groups were staging dramas about the water cycle, reenactments of how to stay safe during a tornado. I panicked. I asked the kids in my group for help, and when they said, “Let’s just say we forgot,” I went rogue. I improvised a character—a weather girl reporting on a forest fire. She was committed to delivering the news while also clearly struggling to stay alive. Everyone in the class laughed. I heard a kid whisper, “Wow, I didn’t know Kelly Bachman was funny!”
I caught the bug. I had written that in seconds, and I felt like Norm Macdonald on “Weekend Update.” I started writing a stand-up routine that can best be summed up as: “What’s the deal with the McDonald’s PlayPlace?” It didn’t go over as well, but it was my beginning.
For most of my childhood and adolescence, I stayed a quiet, creative kid, obsessed with SNL and Monty Python, working toward becoming an author or a screenwriter. Then a few awful things happened that unfortunately happen to a lot of women. I went through what a lot of women go through. I didn’t know what to do. Do I leave school? Do I stop making art? Do I speak out? Do I just move on? Does speaking out ruin someone else’s life? Does it ruin my life?
When #MeToo took over social media in 2017, I went through what a lot of women went through. I saw others speaking out, and I was moved. I was also triggered. I was also terrified. I wrote about a million drafts of a Facebook status coming out as a survivor, before finally posting the message to a small following of friends and relatives. Then I freaked the fuck out.
What do I do now that my friends know? Do we all have to talk about it? Did my co-workers read that? Are they going to bring it up? What are people going to assume about me because they know this? Did my rapist read it? Do our mutual friends know he is who I’m talking about? Do they care?
The answer to all of those questions was yes, and it was hard. People don’t always respond with the right thing when you tell your secrets. Some people don’t believe you. Some people ask too many questions. Some people share painful details of their own stories. Some people give “advice” that implies you could’ve done something to prevent what happened. I know I’m not alone in that experience, and I know how gross it feels.
It’s 2019, and I’m experiencing those same feelings again. I’m meeting big audiences for the first time, meeting comics whom I respect and admire for the first time, and all those people know about me is that I’ve a rape victim, and maybe that they think I’m brave, or maybe that they think I’m an unfunny opportunist fame grabber.
When I was a kid, I worshipped teen comedies made by men, and all of my favorite comics were men. Really hilarious men whose work I still love. Their movies and comedy specials unfortunately often played rape and rape culture for comedy, and I laughed. But I really was hungry for something else that I couldn’t find. I wanted Superbad, but in my version, it’s two rape victim teenage girls laughing about how small their rapists’ dicks are. I wanted Animal House, except I’d make it a sorority of witches who get revenge on the frat rapists. (I did write that screenplay, by the way. Happy to share it with you!)
When I was teenager, I read every YA novel about rape, and most of the books I found were hard to get through. Dark, moody, painful reads that I would revisit again and again, desperate to get to that last chapter when the main character seems to have found hope and a chance to heal. That’s where I want the stories I tell to begin, not end. With healing, with friendship, with possibilities, with a life that goes on.
So, what’s next? Right now, I just want to keep making stuff, and maybe prove that I’m actually funny. I know that I don’t have to prove anything, but I really, really want to be funny. And I want to be honest on stage about what’s on my mind.
I also just want to mention that I’m hot. I feel like I need to make that clear in case all the trauma or the Ryan from The Office comparisons have made me seem less hot. I am hot. And since we’re here, please don’t tell me on dates that you aren’t “trying to get #MeToo’d,” and please don’t bring up my rapes as small talk when you meet me. But I am hot. That’s another article, but just thought I’d mention it real quick.
Kelly Bachman is a comedian and filmmaker from North Carolina, currently based in New York.
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